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by Jay Seaver

"Not much in this haunted apartment."
1 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "DreadOut" is based upon a survival horror video game, and while it's perhaps not the least ambitious example of adapting the action from that medium into film, it certainly does neither medium any favors, transposing the action from one onto another without doing much to take advantage of what film does better than games. It tries to make up for a thin story by being incredibly frantic, but never takes advantage of the visible potential.

It opens with a flashback to ten years ago, when police interrupted what seemed like a fairly intense supernatural ritual, with cultists holding a medium's daughter hostage to make her participate. Now, Linda (Caitlin Halderman) has more or less repressed that memory, more worried about balancing high school and her part-time job. The building where it happened is abandoned, but Jessica (Marsha Aruan), a girl in the next class up, figures that doing a livestream from that spooky edifice will help boost her social media numbers. She's got her boyfriend Beni (Irsyadillah) and a few others going along - Dian (Susan Sameh) is the one who actually looks up what happened, and Alex (Ciccio Manassero) is brash enough for anything - but they need help getting in, and find out Linda knows the security guard. So Erik (Jefri Nichol) flirts with her a bit, and Linda talks them past the door. When they get to the spot on the sixth floor that's still behind police tape, things start to get really creepy - not only is cell phone reception gone, but one of the many pieces of paper lying around have writing that only Linda can see, and when she reads from it, a portal opens in the floor, with several of the group falling in.

It's not quite non-stop action after that, but things barely slow down; Linda has a lot of running around and exploring to do, Jessica gets possessed, and some nasty ghosts seem anxious to make their way to the human world with a special knife in tow. For better or worse, writer/director Kimo Stamboel captures the mechanics of a game here - there are items to collect and use, puzzles to solve, weapons which can push the undead back, and portals between discrete environments that seem awe-inspiring at first but are eventually just useful. For the most part, Linda is isolated, a player-character trying to feel the environment out while also fighting its hazards, occasionally giving the audience a first-person view. It's a technique that can put the audience right in the middle, but also one that can lack detail or intensity.

The other result is that, with relatively little set-up or down-time to be found, it's hard to get to know this crew. Linda and Erik seem nice , and Jessica is established as queen-bee enough that it's a good thing for her that there's not enough to most of the other characters that they might seriously start to wonder if it's worth risking their necks for her. Caitlin Halderman makes an appealing Linda, enough that I might be more interested in seeing the teen romantic comedy that she and Jefri Nichol made together instead of this, and Marsha Aruan is able to bounce from the bitchy teen we first meet to a scenery-chewing monster to someone too shocked by what's going on to remember to act awful, but that's kind of the minimum that this movie needs.

DreadOut is thin most everywhere else, too. Stamboel either assumes that most of this film's Indonesian audience knows the score and thus doesn't need him to fill the mythology in or figures it just doesn't matter, and he appropriates the bits of video games which often make the least sense (like having tremendously valuable objects just lying around randomly, waiting to be collected) and puts them in there without tweaking them. He may be constrained by budget in some ways, but the spirit world Linda journeys to seems terribly bland, with one building whose architecture that would likely easily fit into the Indonesian countryside, and underpopulated to boot - there's only a moment or two when Linda and the rest feel outnumbered and threatened.

The heck of it is, one can see the potential for a nifty horror movie in the corners. The opening sequence is truncated when the cops show up, but it's the best-staged part of the film, full of intensity and hinting at a larger world without asking the audience to fill all that in. There's a nifty visual of the invisible Red Kebaya Lady holding Jessica's head to possess her that might be easy to miss or dismiss because it only shows up on Linda's phone for a second, but that in itself seems to have potential - a twenty-first century teenage medium whose powers naturally mesh with her phone as an extension of herself. It's done so casually here without the potential condescension that could work its way into the idea that I'd love to see someone take the idea and run with it.

That's what's most salvageable about "DreadOut", unfortunately, with the rest unimpressive and covered with loud jump scares. It's a survival horror movie where nobody seems in particular danger of not surviving for very long and there's very little individual reason to be invested in it.

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originally posted: 07/19/19 03:55:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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